6 Questions With the Man Who Sold the Holy Grail of Vintage Watches

James Cox shares how he got Newman’s Rolex, his own history with the watch and his feelings on its sale.

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It would be an understatement to call Paul Newman’s actual ref. 6239 Rolex Daytona one of the most important timepieces to go up for auction in recent memory. It’s certainly been the most talked about. For years, its whereabouts were unknown to the public until news broke this summer that, since 1984, it has belonged to James Cox, who’d been dating Newman’s daughter Nell at the time. Not only that, Cox would be putting the watch up for auction.

A “standard” 6239 "Paul Newman" is rare enough as it is, with examples selling at auction for well over $200,000 in most cases, but Phillips — the auction house tasked with selling off Newman’s watch — expect the Hollywood legend’s watch to exceed $1 million. According to Bloomberg, some enthusiasts speculate it will surpass $10 million. Here’s hoping it does, because according to Cox, “the lion’s share” of the proceeds will be going to Nell Newman’s foundation, which carries on Paul Newman’s own legacy of philanthropy by giving resources to small nonprofits worldwide. (Editor's note: This interview took place before the sale of the watch in late 2017.)

But beyond the press coverage, the rarity of the watch and the (presumably) astronomical sale price, there is the very personal and human story of Paul Newman’s generosity. I recently spoke with Cox over the phone to hear more about his own history with Newman, the Daytona and his feelings on selling the “holy grail” of vintage watch finds.

Q: Tell me the story of how you got the watch.
A: I was eighteen years old, and working for Paul helping him build this treehouse; this was a summer job so I could make some money for college. I think Paul had thought it out beforehand. He was the kind of guy that rolled so cool and so apparently spontaneous, that I think in this particular case when I came over he fully had the intention of giving me the watch. You know, he was an actor and he could just make this environment super cool, whether he had scripted this or actually forgotten to wind it. He asked me for the time, and I said, “I don’t have a watch, I don’t know what time it is,” and that’s when he said, “If you remember to wind this it tells pretty good time.” And then he handed it to me. And there’s Paul, you know, he may not have wound it the day before so that this would play well. Or it could have been spontaneous, but I think the gift was very genuine.

He spent some time showing me how to roll the winder and screw it down, and he did try to explain that it was a chronograph, a timepiece great for racing. When you look at photos of Paul racing, he’s always got the sleeves rolled up, and so he’s really using it. This Daytona was used in that way and was important to Paul when he was racing, which maybe makes it even more special that he gave it to me.

This Daytona was used in that way and was important to Paul when he was racing, which maybe makes it even more special that he gave it to me.

Q: When did you realize the kind of value the watch really had?
A: I think it was when I had gone to an outdoor retailer trade show in the early ’90s. A Japanese guy who didn’t speak much English saw my watch and said, “Paul Newman watch, Paul Newman watch!” And I said, “Yeah, Paul Newman’s watch,” and we couldn’t communicate well enough to move on beyond that back-and-forth, and I thought, “God, how does this guy know this is Paul Newman’s watch?”

Then a few years later, I was walking by a Rolex dealer in Monterey, and there’s a guy standing outside with a Rolex lab coat on, smoking a cigarette, and in the window were a couple Daytonas. I asked him, “What’s retail on those Daytonas?” He looks at me and says “Oh, well, it’s probably about $60,000 to $70,000 on that one, and we have a few more Paul Newmans in back.” And that was my second clue that these guys are calling the watch a Paul Newman, so that’s when I started putting it together. I asked, “What if you had Paul Newman’s actual watch, what would that be worth?” He said maybe about $300,000.

Q: Did you wear it a lot?
A: It was my daily wear through most of college after it was given to me. I was extremely careful with it and I always knew where it was for every day I’ve owned it. I’ve really had no other watches of real significance. So if I was traveling and I knew there was a wildfire in California, and I knew the watch was in my house, it was the first thing I was concerned about. I think to own this thing, it became a responsibility once I realized how important it was to the watch world and how iconic it was. That was six or seven years ago. I said, “Wow, I need to put this thing in a safety deposit box and be careful with it.” I was traveling a lot and didn’t want to wear it and have something going wrong — I just thought it was too risky.

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Q: A lot of people are calling this a “holy grail” of watch collecting. Would you agree?
A: I think that there were definitely times where I questioned that, because it’s just surreal to think that I am in possession of such an iconic thing. We’ve all heard stories where someone had some special car in their garage and didn’t know it, or there’s this very valuable thing that appears in the marketplace, and sometimes the people aren’t aware of the backstory or how amazing it was. Those stories sound really crazy to me, yet I’m one of those stories now, and it’s just hard to kind of get a handle on it. I think it’s because it’s such a personal item for me, that has helped to keep it more grounded.

I think it’s because it’s such a personal item for me, that has helped to keep it more grounded.

Q: So what does that watch mean to you personally?
A: It represents one of the sweetest times in my life. I was in college, I had a great new girlfriend, I’m living at the Newmans’ house. I grew up humbly, and this was a family who was really classy with a lot of resources. They weren’t, as a lot of people imagine them, a famous Hollywood couple with how they behaved; they were just a very down-to-earth family — but they were doing cool things. I went from my very modest upbringing into an environment that was filled with thinkers. Thinkers and people who cared. They read a lot, and there were interesting people around the house, and that, to me, was such an exciting time. And when I look at the watch, it was symbolic to me of that era and this cool family. I mean, my girlfriend’s dad just gave me this gift that was the most important thing I had.

Q: How do you feel about selling the watch?
A: People wonder how I could let it go if it’s that personal, and I think, for me, it is because I knew Paul well enough to know that he didn’t hoard things. He would’ve wanted me to do something amazing with it. When people found out I had it, some tried to buy it from me, but I didn’t want to sell it privately then see it appear on the market shortly thereafter and not be in control of that.

If people knew how great it felt to give their money away, they wouldn’t wait until they’re dead to do it.

The responsibility of selling this is not just that of bringing it to the watch community and letting them share the excitement and see the watch, but also bringing the attention to Paul Newman. He was one of the coolest guys on the planet, but I feel like so many people have forgotten about him. A lot of people in their twenties don’t even know who Paul Newman is, yet in this world right now I think we really need a hero, and I think Paul represents what a hero is about. It’s about humility and walking with grace, and how the world rewarded him for that. Paul would say, “If people knew how great it felt to give their money away, they wouldn’t wait until they’re dead to do it.” I think anybody who wants to be cool and have cool shit should pay attention to how Paul rolled.

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